By DONNIEL HARTMAN
Like many religions, Judaism also has a sacred cow. It is called the Red Heifer, to whom we are introduced in this week’s Torah portion, a cow whose ashes are endowed with the power to purify the impure, yet paradoxically makes anyone who handles it ritually impure.
The real sacredness of this cow, for many, lies not in its ritual powers but in the paradox and irrational dimension that it contains. Why should something which purifies also defile? The irrationality embedded within the laws of the Red Heifer becomes for some the model and core narrative for religious commitment and religious life. To commit to tradition demands of one a leap of faith, a leap over one’s reason, and a leap away from the rational. The Red Heifer has become sacred in that instead of being but a small and insignificant part of our tradition it has been transformed by some into the poster child of what religion means and demands.
After decades of self-created and self-imposed settlement exile, religious Zionism has returned to the center of Israeli discourse. In redefining itself it is no longer a single-issue community, solely preaching the sanctity of land as the overarching virtue and value of our tradition. It is not that religious Zionism has reassessed its position on the holiness of the land and the obligation to settle in all of it, but rather, it is now giving space to the recognition in their public, political persona, to the fact that the Jewish home (Bayit Yehudi) is adorned with multiple ideals and values about how Jews are to live and not merely where.
In a stark and dramatic transition possible only in Israel, religious Zionism moved overnight from the fringe to the center of our political life and national discourse. However, the three critical questions are whether it can stay there, whether it can lead, and whether it will bring a new healing voice to our social discourse.
Political fortune can be fleeting, and success in one election is not necessarily indicative of ability. To lead for the long run requires ideas and values, and commitment and ability to translate and deliver them to the betterment of our country. Is religious Zionism in 2013 lucky or good?
By now you may be asking how all of this is connected to the Red Heifer. Actually, religious Zionism’s relationship to it will be the key to answering the above questions. As distinct from ultra-Orthodoxy, religious Zionists are socially and culturally integrated into Israeli society. Leaving aside some of its rabbis, and a few cadets in officers’ school who walked out of the room at the sound of a woman singing, the vast majority stayed and represent the socio-religious reality of religious Zionism as Modern Orthodoxy. It is an orthodoxy fully assimilated and integrated into Israeli culture and life, an orthodoxy which is committed to halakhah but also committed to being, looking, and acting like the rest of Israeli society. It wears its kippah proudly, but like Naftali Bennet, limits it in size, either physically or conceptually. Rabbis have a voice and authority but not control, whether over the political party or individuals’ lives.
Religious Zionism has broken with ultra-Orthodoxy whether ideologically or in fact, on many issues, from the value of serving in the Army, participation in the workforce, education and acceptance of scientific knowledge, dress codes and laws of modesty, sexual conduct of young adults, gender separation, gender equality, and even attitudes toward the gay and lesbian community.
All of these and others have enabled the positioning of religious Zionists at the heart of Israeli society, with the potential for leadership unimaginable for ultra-Orthodoxy. The fact that the former desire such leadership is possibly the greatest sign of difference.
To fully actualize its potential, however, religious Zionism must sacrifice its Holy Cow. A Judaism which celebrates the irrational as an expression and testimony of its devotion, is a Judaism which builds ghetto walls around its adherents. It is a private language for a group of insiders and not a bridge to the larger community.
If the religious Zionist community is to lead, it needs to embrace and internalize a Judaism of ideas and values which stand on the merits of their content and not on the authority of their author. It is a Judaism whose strength is based on a message capable of convincing and inspiring, and not on political power and religious coercion. It is a Judaism which is respectful of difference and fully committed to democratic values and human rights. It is a Judaism which recognizes the need to constantly adapt and the legitimacy of halakhic change when we encounter new truths and realities. It is an orthodoxy which recognizes that such an understanding does not make them "Reform," (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but rather fully in sync with the self-healing process of halakha over the millennia.
Such a Judaism is capable of transcending political, tribal, and denominational lines and of shaping the values discourse of our society. Such a Judaism is capable and worthy of leadership. Israeli society is hungry for such a Judaism.
Who is religious Zionism’s significant other? Is it the ultra-Orthodox community, which sees it as deviant and sinners? Does religious Zionism view its embracing of modernity an acceptable sin reflecting the weakness of spirit of its members, a necessary accommodation to the youth who would otherwise leave? Or does religious Zionism view modernity as a reservoir of values and ideas which when integrated into a religious life create a life of meaning and a religion of greater value?
More than 800 years ago, Maimonides posited that those who celebrate the irrational in religion as a reflection and testimony to its Divine origin, suffer from a sickness in their souls. (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:31) Rather, he argued, the divinity of our tradition is not measured in the leap of faith that it demands but in its affinity with the rational and the reasonable.
Is the Red Heifer a Sacred Cow, the paradigm of our religious life, or an exception? The answer it gives to this question will shape not only the future of religious Zionism but Israeli society as a whole.